The Wonderland of a Literary MOOC
I recently joined ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World‘ by Prof. Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. This is a typical Coursera xMOOC with the usual closed forum populated by a minority of participants. I never spotted Prof. R. in the forums but there are a number of helpful TAs, some having completed the course on a previous iteration.
Videos are presented in ‘flipped’ format. Prof. R. releases a brief ‘Before You Read’ video, setting the scene for each weekly topic (eg ‘Lewis Carroll’) and then there’s assigned readings and a 270 to 320 words essay to write, “on any literary matter that you studied in that reading: plot, style, theme, structure, imagery, allusion, narrator reliability, and so on.” The essay, “…should aim to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course.” So far so good but the essays are peer reviewed and the system software only allows essay writers to see their own reviews after they review 4 or 5 other essays. A small minority of reviewers submit a minimum of desultory remarks, or even random nonsense, just to comply!
Several videos by Prof. R. discussing different aspects of the topic, (eg 8 videos for Lewis Carroll), are released following the peer assessments. Prof. R. has a very relaxed style of delivery and I found the videos really enjoyable and informative. Writing the essays before the videos does seem the better strategy but some participants would rather have the videos first to spark off ideas. Could anyone reading ‘Alice’, perhaps for the first time, really not have ideas of their own? Perhaps a lack of confidence and a mistaken belief that the only ‘correct’ interpretations are the ones handed down by the Professor is the root cause.
The last literary essay I wrote was a very long time ago but I did manage 4/6 on the two essays I submitted for peer assessment. This is not too surprising as the marking scheme is tightly constrained. There are two categories: form (grammar, usage, and structure) and content (matters of insight, argument, and example). Each is marked on a scale of 1 to 3 so the marks awarded can only range from 2 to 6 and unless the form or content perceived by a reviewer is undeniably awful or absolutely brilliant, the most likely score is 4. Most participants make 4 but not all are happy and there’s the usual controversy, beloved of xMOOCs, about given grades and the marking scheme. The marking scheme is probably designed to keep up grade averages and limit excessively low or high scores. It’s certainly crude and of course it’s operated, with or without due diligence, by other participants. Perhaps a participant’s averaged grades will make some sense by the end of the course but peer assessment is the only means of assessment. My feeling is that these grades have considerably less significance than many participants are led to believe.
The feedback on my own essays was brief but friendly and quite helpful. Many participants (like me) are unpractised literary essayists so some inconsistency between 4 peer assessments on the same essay is to be expected. One peer comment really made me think, “Be careful of words like would, may, appear etc. You are convincing me of your point, use more aggressive language.” But my literary interpretations can be quite speculative and so too are many other interpretations I’ve come across on this course – sometimes wildly speculative! Dressing up speculation with unduly assertive or aggressive language seems a bit like getting a debating point across by shouting.
This course is a new experience for me. I enjoyed the reading and writing but found it all very time-consuming and now with several other projects on the go I’m only monitoring progress. I hardly participated at all in the forums but there was good discussion and debate there. This was clearly the focal point of the course for a small minority of participants and participatory learning and engagement was certainly in evidence. Participants were urged to use the forums but in spite of the usual section for “General discussion about the course, life and everything under the sun.” attempts to move outside the silo’s unspoken limits were politely discouraged. For example, a few participants (not me!) wanting to publicise their own writing met with dusty responses. Of course it’s not a creative writing class but what do Michigan or Coursera have to fear? – criticism by participants who Know What they Signed Up For? – mass exodus from the Proper Course? – overloaded servers? I doubt if these concerns are significant. Some mild ‘forking’ of the course might even help reduce the dreaded dropout rate!
Exercising my new-found powers of literary interpretation I realised that the Lion and the Unicorn episode in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was really about something else. Unfortunately, Carroll does not make this too clear so I had to rewrite it:
The Uniconx, the Lionc and the Connected Cake
(Apologies to Lewis Carroll)
At this moment the Uniconx sauntered past with his hands in his pockets. ‘I ran the best course this time?’ he said to the King.
‘A little — a little,’ the King replied, rather nervously. ‘You shouldn’t have run them through with your pointed questions you know.’
‘It was for their own good’ the Uniconx said carelessly, and he was going on, when his eye happened to fall upon Alice: he turned round rather instantly, and stood for some time looking at her with an air of the deepest disgust.
‘What — is — this?’ he said at last.
‘This is one of your Customers’ replied Haigha eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her. ‘We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’
‘I always thought they were invisible until monetised!’ said the Uniconx. ‘Is it alive?’
‘It can talk but it can’t think for itself,’ said Haigha, solemnly.
The Uniconx looked dreamily at Alice, and said ‘Talk, Customer.’
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: ‘Do you know, I always thought Uniconxes were invisible too! I never saw a visible one before!’
‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Uniconx, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
‘Yes, if you like,’ said Alice.
‘Come, fetch out the cake, old man!’ the Uniconx went on, turning from her to the King. ‘Certainly — certainly!’ the King muttered. ‘Open the bag!’ he whispered to Haigha. ‘NO! Not the one from the silo — its stuffed with graded ticks! The other is discontented.’
Haigha took the large connected cake out of the bag and gave it to Alice to hold while he got out a dish and carving-knife.
The Lionc had joined them while this was going on. ‘What’s this!’ he said, blinking lazily at Alice, ‘Are you animal — vegetable — or mineral?’
‘It’s my visible Customer!’ the Uniconx cried out proudly before Alice could reply.
‘Then hand round the cake, Customer,’ the Lionc said, lying down and putting his chin on his paws. ‘Everyone sit down. Aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward: fair play with the cake, you know!’
The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two massive creatures; but there was no other place for him. ‘What a time the Customer is, cutting up that cake!’ he sighed.
Alice had seated herself on the bank of a little brook, with the great dish on her knees, and was sawing away diligently with the knife. ‘It’s very provoking!’ she said, in reply to the King ‘I’ve cut several slices already, but they always connect up again!’
‘You don’t know how to manage cakes,’ the Uniconx remarked. ‘Hand the content round first, and cut it into facts afterwards.’
This sounded nonsense, but Alice very obediently got up, and carried the dish round and the cake divided itself into three pieces as she did so. ‘Now try to cut it up,’ said the Lionc, as she returned to her place with the empty dish.
‘I say, this isn’t fair!’ cried the Uniconx as Alice sat with the knife in her hand, very much puzzled how to begin. ‘The Customer has given the Lionc more than me!’
‘She’s only trying to share but she’s kept hardly any for herself’ said the Lionc. ‘Don’t you like connected cake?
‘I can’t tell for certain’, said Alice dubiously as the cake re-formed on the plate. ‘It’s all very confusing..’
Several pieces of the cake fell to the ground and found their way into the brook.
‘Why not?’, said the Uniconx. ‘Learn to live with certainty. There’s no secret about a prescriptive cake. Start at the beginning, get to the middle and follow it right through to the end – or die! If you join it in the middle you pay a price.’
‘Not if there’s no content!’ countered the Lionc, ‘and what’s more, a cake should have several middles and ends or none at all.’
‘Scaffolding!’ shouted the Uniconx, standing up. ‘She can’t live with uncertainty because she can’t think for herself!’
‘Oh dear!’ muttered the King disconsolately. Is it off with her talking head then?’
‘Of course I can think for myself!’ cried Alice indignantly.
‘Then choose to run the course with me’ said the Lionc triumphantly and offered her a paw.
Alice started to her feet and they both sprang across the little brook stopping abruptly at a single path sign-posted ‘Self-direction Only’
‘Multiple choices!’ shouted the Uniconx at them from the other side of the brook. ‘Only chaos, confusion, bewilderment, bafflement, or perplexity down there! You’ll all drop out of course!’
‘This way, that way or the other?’ asked the Lionc pointing down the same path but he bounded off before Alice could answer.
The Uniconx turned to the King in frustration. “She can never be told a thing!”
‘Rather like the Bell-Ringers Daughter – ha! ha!”, exclaimed the King as he wandered off.